Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Grown in the USA

The sun felt nice as we waited outside in the brisk air, unsure of whether or not we would be able to enter the factory.  The first day of Team Mexico’s border immersion retreat brought us to the cities of Douglas, AZ and Agua Prieta, Sonora, Mexico to visit a church and a “maquiladora” (or factory).  We waited in the sun for about half an hour when we finally traded our IDs for a visitor’s badge and a hair net and then headed inside where a short middle-aged man greeted us once we made it through the doors.

Visitor Badge #14
Team Mexico w/ hairnets

Before this trip, I had only seen assembly lines on TV and had pictures of “I Love Lucy” in my head; the scene where Lucy and Ethel end up eating as much chocolate as they are wrapping.  Unsurprisingly, the scene was much less comic when the workers are potentially faced with the real threat of job loss --for factory relocation or personal injury-- and poor pay.  

The factory itself was a packaging plant for tomatoes and cucumbers which are grown in the US and shipped to Mexico to be packaged.  A typical work day for a “maquiladora” worker lasts ten hours with a break for lunch.  Their daily duties were simple --as is common in this type of factory work-- but varied among people.  Some were responsible for simply putting tomatoes into plastic containers and then weighing them.  Others were responsible for picking out bad tomatoes from the good.  Covering cucumbers in plastic, putting together cardboard boxes, stacking boxes, moving palettes of boxes from the line to the shipping truck; whichever job you had, you did it all day long.  In the time I toured the factory, workers had packaged about 750 tomato containers, and by the end of the day, around 6 semis worth of tomatoes would have been packed and ready to ship back to the United States.

Boxes to be filled with tomatoes by day's end

The reward for your ten hour day depended on your job, but each of the non-supervisory positions listed above earned between 80-100 pesos per day.  Or between $7 and 8USD/day.  Travel north less than 1 mile from this factory to Douglas, AZ and workers are paid at least $7.25/hour based on minimum wage.  (This is still nearly impossible to live on)  It is no wonder that people are seeking to work in the United States when you can earn 10 times more money in a single day.

Tomatoes waiting to be packaged
Tomatoes are moved to boxes

I would also like to address a question I was asked following my blog post last week:  “Why are migrants crossing through the desert when there are legal ways to enter the United States and seek work?”  I think that it is a really good question to be asking ourselves, since part of addressing any problem is addressing why that problem exists.

Back in January, we went to the US Embassy in Mexico City to see the process for getting a visa.  The process is quite a tedious one, requiring a significant amount of time for processing (sometimes up to 3 years) and a decent amount of money --around $450USD for the simply application--.  In addition to all the paperwork, which I will talk about below, you must have an interview with a visa agent who will either approve or deny your application (no refunds).

The paperwork is a bit complicated; certainly more complicated than hopping on an airplane which is all US citizens have to do to get a Mexican visa.  According to the website at the Department of State, the following is what a person obtaining a visitor’s visa --not even a work visa--must prove.

“The presumption in the law is that every visitor visa applicant is an intending immigrant. Therefore, applicants for visitor visas must overcome this presumption by demonstrating that:
  • The purpose of their trip is to enter the U.S. for business, pleasure, or medical treatment;
  • That they plan to remain for a specific, limited period;
  • Evidence of funds to cover expenses in the United States;
  • Evidence of compelling social and economic ties abroad; and
  • That they have a residence outside the U.S. as well as other binding ties that will insure their return abroad at the end of the visit.” 

Now, required documents for satisfying your visa agent will vary person to person.  None of these points are particularly easy to prove, but in particular I wish to highlight bullet number three.

Evidence of funds to cover expense in the United States.  This means you must provide substantial evidence that you are able to support yourself abroad, i.e. they want to see your paycheck and bank account.  If your earnings fall below the US poverty line, you are denied entry, unless of course you can prove there is a person in the United States willing to support you financially, and then you must provide their paycheck and bank account to prove it.  Of course, even if you had enough income, you still wouldn’t get into the US if you don’t have family or another “compelling social tie” already living there.  

So think about a woman who is working in the “maquiladora” packing tomatoes for 10 hours per day.  She wants to work in Douglas, AZ as a barista in a coffee shop --or maybe just picking tomatoes-- and make $8.00/hour.  Do you think she will be able to get a visa?  It is pretty doubtful, since, unsurprisingly, earning 100 pesos per day doesn’t quite meet the poverty level in the United States.  Even if you worked every day of the month, you would still be around $1000 under the poverty line.  Not to mention, saving the money to pay for the application would take you two months of saving every penny (peso) you made, only to be lost when your application is denied.  

The reality is this:  the only people we are willingly letting into the United States are the people who make a lot of money.  Sadly, the only hope for a person earning the wages of a maquiladora worker seems to be crossing through the desert and hopping over that wall.  This too does not come cheap, sometimes people pay upwards of $1,000 USD to cross, but at least they have a chance to make it.  Facing death in the desert is better than facing death due to starvation or malnutrition.  

So before we condemn everyone who walks across that border, perhaps we should ask ourselves what we would do in the same situation.  If we had children to feed and bills to pay and $8/day isn’t enough, what would we do?  And perhaps we need to evaluate causes of immigration, rather than treating the symptoms.  The factories in Mexico are owned by US corporations; they are the ones who pay the workers.  And our laws are the ones that say these workers are so poor they can’t come to the US.  To me, it is an interesting paradigm.  What do you think?

Roma Tomatoes:  Grown in the USA

No comments:

Post a Comment